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Congregation of the Regent House on 1 October 2002

A Congregation of the Regent House was held at 9.30 a.m. Professor Sir ALEC BROERS delivered the following address to the Regent House:

Members of the Regent House:

This is my sixth annual report as Vice-Chancellor and my last in which I will discuss both the year past and the year to come. This day next year you will be welcoming a new Vice-Chancellor who will take on the task of looking to the future while I will confine myself to reporting on the year that will have past.

But today we are at the start of that year and there is much to be done over the next twelve months. Before discussing the complexities of administration, governance, finance, access, and the concerns of our students, I would like to emphasize that the standing of the University today is very high. The recent Research Assessment Exercise showed that we lead the nation in research. The same can be said for our teaching where some even say that we are unrivalled in the world, and the financial support we have raised from friends and sponsors continues to be strong. Never the less, as has always been the case in our 793-year history, there is need for change and improvement.

Firstly, there is the administration of the University. Our administration is intertwined with our governing structures, which preoccupy us as much today as they did sixty years ago when Lord Keynes praised his father, as Registrary, for creating an environment in which in his words the administrative machine 'existed for the sake of the University and not the other way round'. This is my own view. Ideally all members of the University should be able to pursue their careers unrestrained by bureaucratic procedures. But the University is very much larger today than it was sixty years ago and a great deal more complex. The small scale and relatively simple central bureaucracy that existed in the 1940s could not possibly cope with the complexities we face today. To serve the University at the start of the 21st century the administration must be larger and employ people with specialist skills. Skills that were unknown to Keynes. Our turnover, including the Cambridge University Press and the Local Examinations Syndicate, has grown to around £700m, we have an active building programme of about £350m, the University is divided into 121 departmental financial units, and we administer some 600 research contracts with industrial partners in addition to 3,143 Research Council and other grants. We are required by government to produce data that allow the assessment of research and teaching and to fulfil a range of regulations, many of which have only been created in the last decade. Amongst this legislation is the recently introduced Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 which requires the University through a Race Equality Policy and Action Plan to promote equality of opportunity, encourage good relations between people of different racial groups, and have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination on grounds of race.

Although smaller in number proportionally than at any other university in the UK, our administrators have fulfilled these requirements admirably. I pay tribute to them for what they do and for what they have done, but I do realize that our administrative service must be augmented and given specialist support. The relentless pressures have led to some serious mistakes and we must improve our performance. We are in the process of doing this and I ask you all to help in this process. The unconstructive, and damaging criticism that comes from some sectors of our community is not what is needed. We need to pull together on this issue.

I would like now to discuss three aspects of the governance proposals that have been put to the University by its Council; external membership of the Council, the role of the Vice-Chancellor, and the number of votes required to call for a ballot on proposals submitted to the Regent House by the Central Bodies.

We are alone in the world in not having external representation on our decision making committees. Our Council has no-one from beyond the collegiate University who can bring an outside perspective. This is not only unique within the university system but within the worlds of government, business, and industry. It is unsatisfactory from a number of points of view. It deprives us of an external barometer to allow us to assess how our actions are perceived from outside, it leaves us short of a number of specialist skills, especially in the area of finance, and it allows the members of the committees to behave in a parochial manner without the embarrassment of external scrutiny. The Council proposes that there be three external members. Oxford, which is the university with the next lowest external representation, has recently proposed an increase in the number of external members of its Hebdomadal Council from two to four.

To allow an administration rapidly to fulfil the needs of its constituents, it must have clear lines of responsibility. It is important that communication channels are coherent and clear so that the aims of the organization can be communicated, and indeed achieved. This is the principal justification for hierarchical structures. In successful organizations, the hierarchy does not exist to allow those higher up in the organization to have power over those lower down. It exists to provide clear and unambiguous lines of communication. And in any case, well-managed organizations provide mechanisms for people to appeal to those above their immediate supervisors to remove any danger of uncontrolled power. For an organization to have a coherent reporting structure it must have a central point to which all report. This might be a committee but there is the tendency for the members of a committee to think that it is someone else who has to take action, and committees have difficulty in dealing with issues that affect individuals. To achieve coherence, there must be someone to head an organization and in universities this is generally the Vice-Chancellor or her or his namesake. This is why I support the proposal that the Vice-Chancellor become the Principal Academic and Administrative Officer of the University. It is not to empower the Vice-Chancellor - and in any case the power of the post can readily be limited by the Council - it is to provide the logical and unambiguous apex to the communication channel. Breakdowns of organizational coherence such as that which occurred with the installation of our financial system would more readily be avoided with such a structure and it would also allow the Vice-Chancellor to sign the memorandum of agreement with the Higher Education Funding Council for England with complete confidence.

In most democratic societies power is exercised through elected representatives. In Cambridge we choose to leave the ultimate power with all of the members of the society and require that the University's elected Council consult them before significant decisions are made. The decisions of the Council can be questioned and a ballot called by a group of unelected members half the size of the elected Council. People argue that ballots are rarely called and that this does not hinder our decision making capability. I profoundly disagree. The fact that every decision made by the Council can be questioned by a handful of people emasculates the Council. Instead of concentrating solely on the needs of the University in fulfilling its mission, the Council often becomes preoccupied with anticipating and satisfying the demands of a handful of people with no obligation to represent our society as a whole and who, instead, are frequently pursuing personal interests. This is why I advocate an increase in the number required to call for a ballot to at least 50. I cannot accept that 0.3%, the present situation, of our society should be able to question a decision of the Council which itself is freely elected by that society. If we feel that the Council does not truly represent us, and changes are proposed that will make its membership more inclusive, then we should change its constituency and/or its method of election.

Before leaving the topic of governance I would like to say something about the Colleges. In the debate on University governance, some commentators wrote of what they believed to be a progressive lessening of the influence and purpose of the collegiate system, a belief perhaps reinforced by changes in the way they are funded. There have been times when the Colleges, or some Colleges, have represented conservatism in the face of educational development and progress. The ever-more-pressing demands (especially in the sciences and technology) of departmental responsibilities have led to some questioning the continuing purpose of the Colleges. But I am convinced that the Colleges underpin the whole of our excellence, and furthermore that their relatively small scale but broad cultural diversity, their 'collegiality' indeed, could not be more relevant and effective in dealing with the problems and issues of our age, not least those of class, gender, and race. This is a relationship of interdependence, not one of individual fiefdoms. It is essential, however, that all of the Colleges continue to explain their admissions processes, and make it clear how they reach out equally into all sectors of society.

This brings me to access, which remains the topic of major government and media interest in our University; and undergraduate admissions are the single most frequent topic in my public correspondence. The representations I receive are almost equally divided between those who feel the Colleges to be prejudiced unduly against those educated in the private sector; and those who believe exactly the opposite. My regular discussions with admission tutors convince me that neither of these extremes is true. Cambridge cannot repair the social inequalities and fissures in the school system, let alone the decisive influence of home background. But Colleges can and have made immense efforts over the years to reach out to those many schools and homes for whom Cambridge has not seemed a realizable option, and to identify those who have the potential to benefit from a Cambridge education. This does not, as angry correspondents are apt to allege, involve a lowering of standards. It does show a determination to probe applicants, above all through the interview process, to assess their academic potential and their likely contribution to wider society as much as to University life. At a time when A levels and their marking are yet again under the spotlight, the time and the effort we put into assessing candidates through our extensive interview process has never been more justified, robust, or equitable.

The Colleges, overwhelmingly established, nurtured, and expanded with non-state money, exemplify the achievements which underpin our University. In some so-called 'discussions' in this Senate-House there is detectable an underlying current of apparent resentment that this should be so, that individuals and corporations should be allowed to fund our activities. Without them, what a sorry place this would be! This Senate-House itself was supported by many private donations including one of £50 from a certain Isaac Newton.

So let me pay tribute now to those in the University Development Office and in Faculties, Departments, and Colleges who have steered so successfully what is certainly the most productive fund-raising exercise in our history. I particularly welcome Peter Agar as our new Development Director and John Hanselman as Executive Director in New York.

I have time to mention only a few of our external funding achievements. The overwhelming generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates came to fruition this year with the arrival of the first intake of Gates Scholars, and I am pleased that Bill Gates himself was able to visit us in December. Benefactions each exceeding a million pounds sterling have come from Marie and George Vergottis (for studentships for Greek citizens); from Dr Lisbet Rausing (in recognition of which the Professorship of the History and Philosophy of Science was renamed in honour of her father); from Clay Brendish (for the Library of the Judge Institute of Management Studies); from the late Mark Kaplanoff for the purchase of material in the University Library associated with American History; and from Gianni and Joan Montezemolo for a further Professorship in the Judge Institute of Management Studies.

The largest bequest during the year was from the late Herchel Smith, honorary Doctor of Science, honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, who had already been overwhelmingly generous during his lifetime. His benefaction of some £45m will provide for the full endowment of Professorships, for Research Fellowships in scientific fields, for University Lectureships in Intellectual Property Law and in Medicinal Chemistry; and will endow exchange fellowships with Harvard University. This stupendous gift is one of the largest we have ever received and Emmanuel College too will benefit from Herchel Smith's generosity.

Several other Colleges have received generous gifts and this coming November it will give me great pleasure to see three further benefactors to our Colleges admitted to the Guild of Benefactors alongside those who have supported the University.

As we look ahead it is clear that benefactions will always be essential if Cambridge is to maintain its world-class position. In expressing our gratitude to all those who participate with us in this way I want also to emphasize that whether such support is for a College or a Department, for students or for academics, it is support for the outstanding institution that is Cambridge.

Sir David Williams once spoke memorably of 'the cranes gathering over Cambridge'. The gathering is now denser than ever, and the programme of high-quality buildings is undoubtedly the most diverse and extensive in our history. Amongst the large number of projects completed during the year there were new or refurbished buildings for Mathematics, Music, Astronomy, Engineering, Virology and Medicine, Biochemistry, Computer Science, and Cancer, and there are yet more in prospect in the year ahead especially for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

Many of these projects have been funded by donations and bequests for which we are heartily grateful, and thankful too that our University and our Colleges continue to inspire and to welcome such generosity amongst our alumni and friends throughout the world.

By contrast, the recurrent financial prospects of the University are difficult and in need of rapid attention. Our accounting deficit for 2001 was £9.8m after depreciation, and we will be reporting a deficit for the financial year just ended. In the current year, the Council have recommended that the Chest allocates £11.6m more funds than it expects to receive. We should perhaps note, though, that these sums are to be seen against an annual turnover for the University, leaving aside the Cambridge University Press and the Local Examinations Syndicate, of some £440m.

In her comprehensive commentary in the Discussion on 9 July, the Treasurer set out the background reasons for this state of affairs: the expanding estate, successfully funded to an extent far greater than almost all other universities from external funds, but involving recurrent costs which it has not been possible fully to cover; a sharp increase in overall staff costs, due to new posts, promotions, and discretionary payments; a necessary increase in administrative support throughout the University and long overdue work on overcoming the backlog in IT provision.

The Council and its advisors had reasonably expected that such costs would be covered by a significant increase in income, from research overheads and, in time, from the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise. But this has not happened and our optimism over own internal processes for overhead recovery and our predictions for Government support are therefore inadequate. In 2001 we suffered from reductions, all at the same time, in interest rates, cash flow, and overheads on research grants, due in part to delays in invoicing. Only the last of these was due to the difficulties we had with the introduction of the new financial system. Indeed, the financial system is now beginning to give us the quality of information we need to allow us to analyse our expenditure and income in detail to help determine our future actions.

The situation is certainly not all one of gloom. The University is fortunate in the scale of its endowment and reserves, its capacity for increased earnings, its thriving associated businesses, and the continuing generosity of its benefactors, some of whom I have mentioned. We have been through a period of heavy stockmarket losses and the University has suffered a loss in the capital value of its investments but its innate conservatism has protected it to a significant extent. But there will be painful decisions in the months ahead as the Working Party established by the Planning and Resource Committee considers the measures needed to bring our finances more nearly into balance.

While considering financial matters it is important to consider the difficult situation in which our students find themselves. Their government funding has been declining steadily and many are unavoidably amassing large debts. This is not because of the fee that was introduced two years ago, which is means tested, but because of the loss of the maintenance grant and its replacement with loans. This is a matter of urgency that I hope will be resolved by government before the end of the year. I pay tribute here to the Colleges, especially Trinity College and its Newton Trust, who have contributed generously to student bursaries, thereby greatly helping those without private means.

Spring was overshadowed by an event of national sadness, the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. She was the first woman to proceed to her titular degree here in this Senate-House and through her close links with Girton and Queens' Colleges, her regular visits to the University and City and her unfailing interest in all whom she met, she endeared herself to successive Cambridge generations. She will be deeply and sincerely missed.

Over the last few weeks, and leading to today, we have said farewell to many old friends and faithful servants of the University on their retirement. I want especially to thank Michael Halstead, Treasurer and then Chief Executive of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, Jeremy Mynott, Chief Executive of the Cambridge University Press, and Tony Raban, Head of the Careers Service. Amongst the Heads of Houses, I have been immensely grateful for the practical and moral support of Alan Munro, Master of Christ's, John Gurdon, Master of Magdalene, Shön Ffowcs Williams, Master of Emmanuel, and John Meurig Thomas, Master of Peterhouse. We wish them well and welcome their successors, from very diverse backgrounds.

Many members of the University have been recognized nationally and internationally for their scholarly achievement and contribution to the community. I especially congratulate Gabriel Horn, Partha Dasgupta, and Peter Lachmann on their knighthoods; Twink Allen, Willy Brown, Ann-Louise Kinmonth, Peter Goddard, Steven Ley, and Ann Dowling on their CBEs; Margaret Penson on her MBE. I would like to make especial mention of Geoffrey Skelsey, who has been Private Secretary to eight Vice-Chancellors and who, on his fortieth anniversary in Cambridge, was made a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO) by the Queen. This brought great cheer to my office, who have long been beneficiaries of his labyrinthine knowledge, his wonderful humour, and his immense loyalty to the University.

During the year we have sadly lost many old friends and colleagues, whose combined service to scholarship and the University totals several centuries. Amongst them were Anna Bidder, one of those who founded Lucy Cavendish College; Dick Chorley, a great servant of Geography and of Sidney Sussex College; Fred Hoyle, one of the notable astronomers of our time; Donald Kellaway, one of the longest serving of all members of the General Board; Peter Laslett, one of the founders of the study of population history; Max Perutz, Nobel Prize-winner and inspiration of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology; and Jack Plumb, most eminent of historians, part of whose fortune went, generously, to support future research students.

I must finally mention two much younger colleagues, their lives lost close to the start of promising careers. Jonael Shickler and Emma Knights were killed in the Potters Bar railway accident in May, a cruel and probably avoidable blow.

It would be impossible for me to thank individually all those who have - sometimes at no small inconvenience and disruption - supported me in my duties over the year, and indeed since 1996. It should be remembered that the Vice-Chancellor nominally chairs well over 100 committees of which about three-quarters are in practice chaired on my behalf by colleagues, mainly Heads of Houses. To them, to the Pro-Vice-Chancellors, and to the Deputy Vice-Chancellors I say an earnest 'thank you': the University is indeed fortunate that they are willing to support its work in this and other ways.

I am deeply grateful for the constructive support and guidance I receive from the Registrary, Secretary General, and Treasurer, and from the Directors of Divisions within the Unified Administrative Service, and their staffs. And, naturally, without the backing of my wife the pace would not be sustainable.

Some who follow these proceedings will be surprised to know that this is not a Congregation and that the official business of the day, the election of the Proctors for the coming year and their installation in a ceremony hardly changed for centuries, has still to come. This coincidence of past, present, and future, of ceremony and practicality, is characteristic of our University and should be cherished. But tradition and ceremony cannot wholly substitute for practicality, any more than we now send soldiers to fight in scarlet, or monarchs to the further reaches of the kingdom in golden coaches. The University must continuously be re-thinking the way it operates to ensure that we exist for excellence and to fulfil the objectives that define us today and tomorrow, and not for those that defined us in the past.

In finishing let me return to the proposals for changing our governing structures, and your role in deciding them. These proposals are not radical. They are far less profound than those which - against strong and eloquent opposition - were adopted in the mid nineteenth century and further revised seventy-five years ago. They laid the foundations for our present eminence. Can we not do as well? It defies sense and logic to assert that a constitutional settlement reached in the 1920s for a small, male, residential, largely arts-based university with modest public funding can endure indefinitely, unchanged into the fundamentally different conditions of the 21st century.

Members of the Regent House, you have a grave responsibility in the months to come, and what you decide will in no small measure decide the long-term future of our University. I hope that you, all of you, will spend the time necessary to understand our procedures and the changes that are being proposed, and vote.

DAVID JOHN CHIVERS, of Selwyn College, and VEDIA EMEL IZZET, of Christ's College, retired from the office of Proctor, and delivered the insignia of their office to the Vice-Chancellor.

JAMES DAMIAN MCDONALD, of Gonville and Caius College, and TIMOTHY NICHOLAS MILNER, of Peterhouse, were elected to the office of Proctor for the year 2002-03, and were admitted to that office by the Vice-Chancellor.

ELISABETH SOMERVILLE LEEDHAM-GREEN, of Darwin College, and CHRISTOPHER FORBES FORSYTH, of Robinson College, were admitted to the office of Pro-Proctor for the year 2002-03.

DAVID JOHN CHIVERS, of Selwyn College, and VEDIA EMEL IZZET, of Christ's College, were elected to the office of Deputy Proctor for the year 2002-03, and made their public declaration in accordance with Statute D, VI, 5.

T. J. MEAD, Registrary


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Cambridge University Reporter, 9 October 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.